Professional Development for Christian School Educators and Leaders

Professional development opportunities are nearly universal in the experiences of US educators, both in public school settings and in Christian schools (Darling-Hammond et al., “Trends and Challenges”; Finn et al.). Nationwide spending on professional development (PD) totals billions of dollars, which makes PD for educators “big business” (Hill). Yet despite the sizable investment of time and resources, teachers generally report dissatisfaction with PD experiences, particularly with short-term workshops, which comprise the majority of PD offerings (Darling-Hammond et al., “Status Report”). Moreover, both practitioners and researchers are uncertain as to what constitutes effective PD. According to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (1), even after nearly five decades of research, “Parsing the strengths and weaknesses of the vast array of programs that purport to invest in teachers’ knowledge and skills continues to be a challenge.”

A number of issues in practice and research have contributed to this challenge, such as a lack of a shared definition for most PD practices; use of varying metrics to determine PD effectiveness (e.g., increased teacher knowledge, changed instructional practice, and student achievement gains); a myriad of program and study designs, which renders comparison of findings across the research difficult; and the complexity of PD programs and settings, which makes PD effectiveness an equally complex phenomenon to study. In an effort to address these problems systematically, I conducted a literature synthesis—involving extensive searches of the academic literature and analysis of over five hundred studies and documents, with the following guiding question: “What are the best frameworks and practices in professional development for Christian school teachers and leaders?”

In answering this question, findings from the literature are organized into four distinct lines of investigation: first, mapping the landscape of PD in the United States (including history, models, conceptual frameworks, and PD in Christian schools); second, examining the evidence for program components (such as content focus, active learning, and duration) that may contribute to PD effectiveness; third, reviewing the research base for a number of specific PD practices; and fourth, encapsulating the research on PD for school leaders.

The Professional Development Landscape

When one surveys the landscape of PD programs and related research, three broad time periods over the last five decades can be identified. In the first, the school restructuring era, from the 1960s to the mid-1990s, federal legislation provided funding for PD as a means of improving schools to produce better student outcomes. Schools imported PD methods directly from the business world during this period, which resulted in a prevalence of training workshops, conferences, and train-the-trainer approaches, all of which are categorized in the literature as “standardized PD” (Hooker). PD effectiveness was typically evaluated by measuring teacher satisfaction with PD experiences, with little attention paid to the outcomes of PD for teacher practice or student achievement.

In the “reform” era (Stewart; Desimone), from the mid-1990s until approximately 2010, legislation continued to shape the PD terrain by calling for more job-embedded PD forms like coaching and mentoring, along with evaluation of programs based on gains in student achievement. The growth of adult learning theory during this time also bolstered and provided a conceptual base for these “site-based” forms of PD (Hooker; Gable and Burns), by suggesting that teachers learn best by integrating experience, reflection, and action in an iterative cycle (Kolb; Hutchings and Wutzdorff); focusing on authentic problems of practice through reflection-in-action (Schön; Garvin); engaging in learning that not only impacts practice but also transforms professional identity (Mezirow); and learning from and alongside colleagues in the social context of schools (Wenger). Online PD formats became more prevalent as Internet use expanded, which offered new opportunities for “self-directed PD” (Hooker; Gaible and Burns). Educators participated in webinars, online discussion groups, and virtual learning communities. During this time period the role of school leaders began to shift as well, away from managerial and operational functions toward instructional leadership. Finally, research methodologies focused on specific components or features of PD experiences that might contribute to their effectiveness, along with evaluating program impact on student achievement (particularly in urban and low-performing schools).

 Less-expensive, short-term workshops still seem to predominate the PD landscape

The most recent period, from 2010 until the present, may be termed the accountability era. Since the inception of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010, PD across the country has moved toward training teachers in CCSS implementation and related assessment (Hill et al.). Additionally, in the wake of the 2008 recession and reduced PD funding, the demand for cost-efficient approaches to staff development has grown stronger. Taken together, CCSS implementation and budgetary constraints may be contributing factors as to why less-expensive, short-term workshops still seem to predominate the PD landscape (Darling-Hammond et al., “Status Report”), even though job-embedded forms of PD were widely heralded during the preceding era. Overall, the present period is marked by increased pressure on schools by states, the federal government, and the public to be accountable for both student outcomes and instructional expenditures. Thus while the search for effective PD has characterized each of the preceding eras, the pressure to identify PD opportunities with high return on investment (ROI)—now almost exclusively measured by student achievement gains—is more urgent than ever.

While not operating under the same constraints as public schools, private schools have been affected by these developments over time. Though there are very few empirical studies of PD in Christian schools specifically, what exists suggests that such PD mirrors the larger landscape in American education. Survey research from different parts of the United States confirms that in-service workshops still predominate in Christian school PD efforts, and that more collaborative and reflective forms of PD are least available to teachers (Headley; Finn et al.; Neuzil and Vaughn). Recent research found that PD in a sample of Christian schools did not fully meet the standards of the National Staff Development Council and that progress is needed in providing more active, collaborative, and content-specific PD (Montoro). Finally, leaders in Christian education have reported that most teachers and administrators in Christian schools remain skeptical of educational research, and are not as engaged in reform efforts as their counterparts in other educational settings (Boerema). Taken together, the research suggests there is room for improvement in PD experiences in Christian school settings.   [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead author or editor of several books, including Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools,and MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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